Football 101

Football Appreciation 101:

Football for Novices – 5 Secrets to “Getting” the Game of Football

I. If you are a true beginner, just keep your eye on the ball.

boy keeping his eye on football coming toward him

It goes from Center to Quarterback. The quarterback then backs up and either passes the ball or hands it off to a running back. Or there’s a trick play, which will be signaled to you by the exuberant reaction of those fans in your vicinity. Again, try to follow the ball. That’s what the cameras do. The funniest thing in any football game broadcast is that rare occasion when the wide shot cameraman “loses” the ball and the screen bounces back and forth trying to find it.

II. Listen to the announcers.

One is the “play by play” man who will tell you what type of play was run and what the result was.

OK, so this isn’t radio and you don’t care yet what a screen pass or play action fake is. You can kind of ignore him at this point. Concentrate on the “color” guy. No, this is not a racist remark: the “color analyst” is almost always either a former player or a former coach. His job is to provide colorful comments to enhance the TV audience’s enjoyment of the game. They will explain what happened that you might not have seen and also give you interesting tidbits and fun facts about the players, coaches and even the officials. For instance, they’ll remind you that Quarterback Brett Favre has started over 285 games IN A ROW — and the totals will only keep going up if he returns in 2010.   See, that’s impressive in a game where every single member of the defense is trying to put him in the hospital. Women remember these human interest bytes much more accurately than men and you will soon be impressing your friends with the fact that you know former Tampa Bay Running Back Warrick Dunn is a two-time NFL Man of the Year winner for his work with housing for poverty-stricken families.

III. Get the basics.

  1. The playing field is 100 yards long. Each offensive team has four tries – or downs – to go 10 yards further down the field towards the goal line. More than that is cause for cheering – unless of course your team is on defense.
  2. Less than 10 yards progress and they have to “punt.” This is when one of the kickers comes out and kicks the ball as far forward as possible to the other team. The objective is to make the other guys’ offense have farther to go.
  3. If your team manages to go 10 yards, that’s called a First Down – and you get 4 more tries to go another 10 yards. Of course if your quarterback throws a TD pass from the 50-yard line, then it’s a touchdown and you don’t have to worry anymore about first downs.
  4. I’m going to assume you know what a touchdown (TD) is – getting the ball in the other team’s end zone. It’s 6 points. Kicking the ball through the goal posts afterwards is worth 1 point and is called a PAT – or Point After Touchdown.
  5. A Field Goal is when the team runs out of downs (see #1 above. ) and decides to try for the 3 points you get when your kicker sails the ball through the goal posts from wherever your team got bogged down. Of course your team needs to be reasonably close to the goal posts in order to do this. If any further away than the 40-yard line, your team’s fans will go nuts if the kicker “makes” it.
  6. goalpost with football going through it

  7. The only other way to score (except for a drop kick which happens like once a decade so don’t worry about it) is for your defense to tackle someone on the other team in their own end zone (that’s the 10 yard area behind the goal line where the goal posts are). That’s a real embarrassing boo-boo on the other team and you get 2 points.
  8. Coin tosses start the game and overtime (if there is overtime). The winner of the toss gets to pick either to receive the ball first on offense or to pick which direction they will go in. The loser picks what’s left. Teams almost always pick to get the ball – the only exception usually being strong wind conditions. Whichever team gets the ball first, the other team gets the ball first after half-time.
  9. There are four quarters of 15 minutes. Two before half-time and two after. Here’s one tricky thing that can confuse the fledgling fan: the teams switch ends at the end of each quarter. So if your team was driving down the field right to left in the first quarter, they will be going left to right in the second quarter. If you get confused, look at the little box on the screen – it will tell you which quarter is being played.
  10. If at the end of the 4th quarter the game is tied – the game goes into overtime. Coin is tossed again.   After that, things have changed a bit for 2010 as the NFL tries out a new overtime system.  The first team to get the ball must score a touchdown and not a field goal.  Which is much harder.  Otherwise, the opposing team is give at least one shot at scoring.  Confused?  It gets better.  This new system only applies to the playoffs.  For the regular season, the team that wins the toss tries to score any way that they can, period.  If they fail to score, the ball goes over to the other side just like in regular time.  The first team to score, wins and the game is immediately over.  That is why it’s called “sudden death” for the losing team. (See Barbara’s essay: Overtime Debate)

See? Less than 10 basics and you’re set to watch. You’ll learn about penalties and plays and strategies later.

IV. Ask questions.

cartoon character question mark raises his hand

During the commercials, please. Contrary to what Madison Avenue seems to think – if it’s not the Super Bowl no self-respecting fan is watching the commercials. So ask away. Football fans LOVE to talk about football!

V. The sure-fire, no-fail way to leave the sports bar with a date.*

You know that scene in Born Yesterday where the tutor has given Billie Holliday/Melanie Griffith the trick answers to all the snooty Washington DC party questions? This is like that.

emoticon love

You absolutely do not even need to know what it means – your Bluff will never be called because only referees and VERY serious fans really know when this actually happens. And the beauty of this penalty is that it can happen on BOTH sides of the ball – so it works whether your team is on offense or defense.

You wait until the ball is snapped, let the Quarterback take one step backwards, stand up, point at the screen and yell:


Every man in the bar will suddenly look at you as if you were Venus rising from the sea. Have fun.

*This dating tip is shamelessly stolen from a fellow female sports fan. I sure wish I’d known about it when I was single!